Nixon's library to go by the book

Times Staff Writer

The Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda has long been the most kicked-around of presidential libraries, and nothing invited more ridicule than the dim, narrow room purporting to describe the scandal that drove its namesake from office.

Venturing into that room, visitors learned that Watergate, which provoked a constitutional crisis and became an enduring byword for abuses of executive power, was really a "coup" engineered by Nixon enemies. The exhibit accused Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein -- without evidence -- of "offering bribes" to further their famous coverage.

Most conspicuous was a heavily edited, innocent-seeming version of the "smoking gun" tape of June 23, 1972, the resignation-clinching piece of evidence in which Nixon and his top aide are heard conspiring to thwart the FBI probe of Watergate.

This was history as Nixon wanted it remembered, a monument to his decades-long campaign to refurbish his name. Nixon himself approved the exhibit before the library's 1990 opening.

"Everybody who visited it, who knew the first thing about history, thought it was a joke," one Nixon scholar, David Greenberg, said of the Watergate gallery. "You didn't know whether to laugh or cry."

In late March, however, workers roped off the Watergate gallery and methodically began to destroy it. Armed with hammers, a crowbar, a screw gun and a Sawzall, they yanked big display cabinets out of the floor, sliced through tough fiberboard panels, detached more than 100 fluorescent lighting tubes and removed the long strips of plexiglass that had sandwiched text transparencies.

The exhibit, which stood for 17 years, had been designed to last, and the demolition took two weeks. "It was as permanent as you can build it," said museum Curator Olivia Anastasiadis. Workers piled debris onto a cart and rolled it out back, where it filled two gigantic Dumpsters.

"I can't run a shrine," says the man who ordered the demolition, Timothy Naftali, 45. Named last year as the library's first federal director, the Harvard-trained historian is guiding the library's shift from a privately run facility -- the only modern presidential library not part of the federal system -- to an institution that bears the National Archives' imprimatur.

In effect, that means transforming the black sheep of presidential libraries into an institution that will eventually be entrusted with the vast trove of Nixon's White House material that the government seized in the 1970s, fearing its destruction.

A stylishly dressed, excitable man possessed of rapid speech and animated hands, Naftali is standing with a cup of coffee in what the wreckers left of the Watergate exhibit: an empty room, the walls big and blank and coated with primer. For Naftali, a Cold War scholar and expert in presidential recordings, it represents a cleared canvas.

Several months ago, Naftali approached the Nixon Foundation's director, John Taylor, a former Nixon aide who helped write the zealously pro-Nixon text of the original Watergate exhibit, and announced his intention of tearing the exhibit down.

"I said, 'In order to start the process of reforming...' " Naftali says, then chooses a more diplomatic word: " 'Changing the museum, I need to begin with Watergate.' "

Naftali, who gave up his job at the University of Virginia to take this post, presents himself as neither a hater of the 37th president nor an apologist for him. Although he freely dispenses political opinions -- in his blog, he has inveighed against warrantless spying and nominated President Bush as "one of the worst presidents of the last century" -- he is tactfully tight-lipped about Nixon.

He will happily tick off Nixonian achievements -- in foreign policy, the environment, civil rights -- that he wants visitors to learn about at the library. Yet asked for a general assessment of Nixon, the kind scholars love to give, he smiles and says, "Who?"

Naftali, and no longer the fierce Nixon loyalists, will control the library's archives and exhibits. But the first major task he has set himself is not an easy one.

How do you tell a story as ugly as Watergate in a building that bears Nixon's name? How do you chronicle a president's most shameful episode just a few yards from the clapboard farmhouse where he was born and the black marble gravestone he lies beneath? What do you put in, and what do you leave out, in a city where his birthday is a holiday?

"You're going to have the story of dirty tricks -- you have to," Naftali says. The challenge: to hew to the historical record and yet somehow "be respectful of parts of a community that may view it in a different way."

First impressions

When the $21-million library opened with private funds in July 1990, amid trumpets and a crowd of 50,000 that included Nixon and three other presidents, one biographer called the occasion "a symbolic redemption" for the president who had resigned in disgrace in 1974.

Yet from the start, the library had trouble being taken seriously. Its first director, Hugh Hewitt, announced that researchers deemed unfriendly would be banned from the archives, singling out the Washington Post's Bob Woodward as a candidate for exclusion. Scholars cried foul; Hewitt revoked the plan.

What's more, the library possessed only Nixon's pre- and post-presidential papers. In 1974, Congress mandated that his White House materials be kept in the Washington area, amid fears that Watergate-related documents would be destroyed.

For years, the library enjoyed a reputation less as a sanctuary for scholars than as a roadside attraction, a place Nixon scholar Stanley Kutler derided as "another Southern California theme park," adding: "Its level of reality is only slightly better than Disneyland."

When scholar Greenberg visited the Yorba Linda library to research his book "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image," he found the staff in the reading room professional and helpful. But when he ventured into the exhibits depicting Nixon's career, he found "an incredibly distorted, biased, pro-Nixon view of his presidency that distorted facts about Watergate."

Described by some scholars as the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War, the scandal got its name from the break-in of Democratic national headquarters at Washington's Watergate building in June 1972. Though the White House downplayed it as "a third-rate burglary," it proved part of a pattern -- one established early in Nixon's presidency -- to use government agencies and independent groups to spy on and harass perceived enemies.

As the drama unfolded, a Watergate grand jury named Nixon as an "unindicted co-conspirator." Nixon's political support collapsed after a tape emerged in which he ordered his top aide, H.R. Haldeman, to have the CIA stop the FBI's probe of Watergate on the pretext of national security. Facing impeachment, he resigned.

Nixon would describe the scandal as "politics pure and simple" -- a campaign by Democrats and other enemies to reverse the will of voters. It was a perspective the museum vigorously advanced, instructing visitors, among other things, that a "mechanical malfunction" explained the notorious 18 1/2 -minute gap of one Nixon conversation, though a team of experts appointed by a federal judge ruled out that explanation.

Taylor, the Nixon Foundation director, acknowledges that the Watergate exhibit was "in places too polemical" and said he supports Naftali's efforts to create a "more neutral" account. Still, he remains unapologetic about the original. "It is not true that you will find people at the Nixon Library abjectly in sackcloth and ashes because of the way it was before."

Taylor said Nixon skipped the Watergate gallery at the library's 1990 opening and isn't sure if he saw it on the two other occasions he visited. "And if he didn't, I wouldn't have blamed him," Taylor said.

After lobbying by Nixon's family and loyalists, Congress agreed in 2004 to let the Yorba Linda library join the official presidential library system, and the library promised "more strictly factual exhibits."

But the legacy of distrust lingered, prompting 16 scholars to send a letter to Congress protesting the release of Nixon's White House archives to the library. "I thought it was a terrible idea for a long time," said Greenberg, who was among those scholars.

Then, last year, the National Archives announced that Naftali would be the library's first federal director. That "changed things 180 degrees," Greenberg said, adding: "But I'm sure it won't be easy for Naftali either in his new job."

Revisiting a scandal

Naftali was no stranger to the library's reputation. Soon after his arrival, he stood in the Watergate gallery and pronounced it "unfortunate," adding: "This is a good explication of how Nixon viewed Watergate. The trouble is, it gives the impression it's history."

In its place, he promises "a 360 degree look at the issue," with a row of plasma screens featuring oral accounts of those who played a role in the drama. The account will begin, he says, a year before the break-in itself -- with Daniel Ellsberg's 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government study of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration responded by creating the so-called plumbers, who broke into the Beverly Hills office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in search of his file.

Naftali interviewed the man who helped engineer the Beverly Hills break-in, former plumbers boss Egil "Bud" Krogh, who was indicted for perjury in connection with it. He interviewed Jeb Magruder, the White House aide who supervised the Watergate break-in, served seven months in prison, and who later said he heard Nixon himself authorize the burglary.

He interviewed former Deputy Atty. Gen. William Ruckelshaus, who resigned amid the Oct. 1973 "Saturday Night Massacre" rather than obey a White House order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor who had demanded Nixon's secretly recorded tapes.

He interviewed Nixon appointments secretary Dwight Chapin, who hired Donald Segretti, a Nixon campaign operative -- and now an Irvine attorney -- who engaged in sabotage of Democrats. He recorded the account of Nixon speechwriter Ray Price, who contributed to Nixon's 1974 resignation speech.

The exhibit will feature "snippets, but some people will say the snippets will be taken out of context," Naftali says, adding that to obviate the concern he will make the full interviews easily accessible.

Along with the first-person accounts, there will be selections from White House tapes, scanned archives, bits of news broadcasts and footage of the Watergate hearings.

The gallery will be "an interactive, self-curated experience," he says. "You'll be able to navigate through this story yourself. It'll be up to the visitor to decide, 'Did Nixon order this? Did he order the coverup? What were the abuses of power? What role did partisan politics play in Richard Nixon's downfall? What role did personality play?' I'm not going to answer those questions. It's not up to me."

The exhibit will raise questions, he says, instead of providing "some kind of closure that's artificial." He wants to avoid, as he puts it, "replacing one form of didacticism with another," as well as "the schoolmarm problem, the wagging finger."

It will also steer clear of historical analysis. "If you brought in historians, you'd have to have one on the left, one on the right," leading to "a crossfire situation where you confuse people."

The library will officially enter the federal system Wednesday with the title of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum. After congress provides funding for a 15,000-square-foot addition, the National Archives plans to send the library copies of 4,000 hours of Nixon's presidential tapes, plus 42 million pages of presidential materials now being held in College Park, Md.

Foundation keeps a role

The Nixon Foundation will continue to rent out the Yorba Linda building's amphitheater and its reproduction of the White House East Room for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other events, which will help fund exhibits and programs.

The foundation will also continue to run the museum's gift shop, where visitors can purchase a stunning variety of Nixon kitsch: Nixon bookmarks, Nixon mouse pads, Nixon sparkle-lamps, even pens that feature a tiny portrait of Nixon and Elvis Presley, gripping hands as they float together through the pen's liquid center.

Items with the president and Presley are a perennial best-seller, says merchandise director Ric Leczel on a recent tour of the gift shop.

On a shelf nearby sit copies of a surprising new addition to the store: Woodward and Bernstein's "All the President's Men," an account of uncovering Watergate.

"It's part of the new feeling around here. Put the cards on the table, let people make up their own minds," Leczel says, adding that it has not sold well. "It's Orange County."

Naftali, for his part, says he had no direct hand in getting the Woodward and Bernstein book into the museum store, but is glad to see it. "Isn't that nice?" he says. "I like to think there's a certain wind blowing."

Nixon's account of the scandal that ruined his presidency has lost, even here in the shadow of his birthplace and grave, but it won't be lost to posterity.

Before he had the Watergate gallery ripped out, Naftali ordered workers to take digital photographs of every image, every line of text. He will display them on a plasma screen when the new gallery opens in a few months. He sees it as an important window into the 37th president's mind, Nixon's version of history now a historical artifact itself.

christopher.goffard

@latimes.com

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